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Thucydides Roundtable, Book III: A Layered Text

Monday, November 7th, 2016

[by Joseph Guerra]

In my first post on this Roundtable I brought up the concept of strategic narrative and how it serves as a link between Thucydides and Clausewitz from a strategic theory perspective.  Describing the layered nature of The Peloponnesian War, Ned Lebow, expanding on W. Robert Conner, outlines four levels of narrative:  The first regards “interest, justice and their relationship”.  The second is the story of Athens as a tragedy.  The third, following the second, is “the relationship between nomos (convention, custom, law) and phusis (nature) and its implications in the development and preservation of civilisation”.  The fourth and final level in this outline is the “meta-theme” of the entire narrative: “the rise and fall of Greek civilisation, and the circumstances in which different facets of human nature come to the fore”.

This follows a standard approach to many great works.  The idea that the author is not so much presenting a story, as much as attempting to engage with the reader, get them to question their own preconceived notions about a subject, essentially to create a dialectic in which the reader is able to achieve a higher level of understanding through a process of reading, questioning, contemplating and then going on to the next related element, while at the same time retaining the conceptual whole and how the various elements are related.  Not so surprisingly the same is said about Clausewitz’s On War.

The Corcyrean revolution is chillingly described in 3.70-3.85.  Here we see all the levels of the narrative displayed as complex interactions.  Interest has overcome justice, which in any case is only achievable among equals.  But does actual equality exist between humans, as in democratic structures of government, or are they simply a myth?  Conventions and customs fall prey to human nature and impulse, while the meanings of words decay (through narrow interest) which in turn has an effect on actions, which in turn has to be justified thus leading to further decay of the overall narrative.  As with Thucydides’s description of the plague in Athens in Book II, some respond heroically to this turmoil (stasis), but most succumb giving themselves over to impulse and/or fear and act in ways that would have been inconceivable prior to the crisis.  Civilisation itself, which requires a basis (shared interests, justice, language, common conventions, etc,) for stability, starts to come apart.  This all follows more or less the development of a Greek tragedy, or repeated tragedies, with the implication that this is more the nature of humanity as a whole, than being limited to a specific time and place.

Announcing New E-Book! The Clausewitz Roundtable

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

The Clausewitz Roundtable edited by Michael J. Lotus, Mark Safranski and Lynn C. Rees

It is a common observation that Clausewitz is more often quoted than read. It could also be said with equal probability that Clausewitz is more often read than he is understood. In 2008 a group of bloggers, military officers, scientists, lawyers, professors, computer programmers, world travelers, Clausewitzian experts and Clausewitz skeptics came together online at Chicago Boyz blog to read and discuss On War together.

Founded by alumni of the University of Chicago,  Chicago Boyz seemed a good place to read On War in “the Chicago Way”, methodically, deeply and with attention to the original text discussing and debating each chapter in detail. For many of us it was a rich learning experience; some were reading On War for the first time, others had read it many times but all had insights to contribute, all found something in Clausewitz that was new. It was really blogging at it’s intellectual best and an experience that is now somewhat lost and forgotten in the rapid-fire era of 144 character tweets and Facebook memes.

We decided the discussions were interesting and profitable to merit being edited into an e-book for more convenient reading than leaving these discussions to gather digital dust in the archives. What do you get if you plunk down a mere $2.99 for The Clausewitz Roundtable?

A methodical and erudite chapter by chapter analysis and debate over On War and Clausewitz’s ideas

553  pages of discussion of strategy, strategic theory and military history including Napoleon, Ludendorff, Svechin, von Moltke, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Jomini, Herman Kahn, Ehud Barak, William Slim, John Boyd, Richard Nixon, Thomas Schelling, Vo Nguyen Giap,  Frantz Fanon and many others.

The original comments made on the posts, some of which were fine essays in their own right

If you are reading On War for the first time or are a master Clausewitzian, you will find The Clausewitz Roundtable to be a useful and engaging supplement.

Order a copy for the war nerd in your life!

Force and Faith — Turkey

Monday, July 18th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — “we wrestle not against flesh and blood” ]
.

Stalin’s sneering rhetorical question meets Erdogan’s declaration of faith:

Tablet DQ 600 stalin erdogan

**

The idea of spiritual force is an old one, found eg in both New Testament and Qur’an

  • For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. — Ephesians 6.12

  • When you were calling upon your Lord for succour, and He answered you, ‘I shall reinforce you with a thousand angels riding behind you.’ — Qur’an 8.9
  • — and von Clausewitz:

  • One might say that the physical factors seem little more than the wooden hilt, while the moral factors are the precious metal, the real weapon, the finely-honed blade.
  • How to draw a circle in a line

    Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — Robert Redford and Brad Pitt on a Berlin rooftop ]
    .

    circle on a line Spy Game rooftop
    how do you draw a circle in an entirely linear medium?

    **

    The movie is Spy Game, with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.

    To my mind, it’s a brilliant piece of film making: director Tony Scott chose a terrific location for Nathan Muir (Redford)’s debrief reaming of Tom Bishop (Pitt), in the course of which Muir very pointedly tells Bishop:

    Listen to this, because this is important. If you’d pulled a stunt there and got nabbed, I wouldn’t come after you. You go off the reservation, I will not come after you.

    That’s the heart of the movie, right there, in negative — because the whole movie is about Bishop going off reservation in China, pulling a stunt there, and getting nabbed by the Chinese, and Muir coming after Bishop and rescuing him, with great shenanigans and flashbacks along the way.

    Scott wants to draw a circle around that point, to drive it home — but this is a movie, a totally linear sequence frames, whether celluloid or digital, so how do you draw a circle in a linear medium?

    Scott shoots the scene atop a circular roof, and before, during and after the conversation between the two men, has the camera circle the building:

    **

    I know, I stretch the limits of this blog mercilessly — and I’m spending this post on a piece of cinema technique. Let’s just say that I take Adam Elkus‘ words seriously:

    Clausewitz himself was heavily inspired by ideas from other fields and any aspiring Clausewitzian ought to mimic the dead Prussian’s habit of reading widely and promiscuously.

    I’m being promiscuous.

    **

    There are two other major points caught in Scott’s tight circle. One offers the essence of Spy Game, emphasis on the spy:

    Bishop: Okay, help me understand this one. Nathan, what are we doing here? Don’t bullshit me about the greater good.
    Muir: That’s exactly what it’s about. Because what we do is, unfortunately, very necessary.

    The other gets to the other half of the name Spy Gamegame:

    Bishop: It’s not a fucking game!
    Muir: Yes, it is. That’s exactly what it is. It’s no kid’s game, either, but a whole other game. And it’s serious, and it’s dangerous, and it’s not one you want to lose.

    So, in the gospel according to Spy Game, espionage is a deadly and death-dealing game, played unfortunately but very necessarily for the greater good. All that in three short minutes, with a circle drawn around it for emphasis.

    **

    Thus a problem in geometry is artfully transcended.

    Small Wars and Big Thoughts

    Saturday, March 19th, 2016

    [by Mark Safranski / “zen“]


    U.S. Marines display captured flag of Nicaraguan rebels led by Augusto Cesar Sandino

    While pop-centric COIN may be dead, small wars and irregular warfare will always be with us. We might say they are in the fourth or fifth generation; are an open-source insurgency; or have become “hybrid“; or exist in some kind of mysteriousgray zone“. Whatever we call them, small wars are here to stay.

    Two recent publications explore the topic.

    The first is a taxonomic work from Robert Bunker at the Strategic Studies Institute:

    Old and New Insurgency Forms

    ….Blood Cultist (Emergent). Strategic implications:  Limited to moderate. This insurgency form can be viewed as a mutation of either radical Islam and/or rampant criminality, as found in parts of Latin America and Africa, into dark spirituality based on cult-like behaviors and activities involving rituals and even human sacrifice. To respond to this insurgency form, either federal law enforcement or the military will be the designated lead depending on the specific international incident taking place. An all-of-government approach will be required to mitigate and defeat this insurgency form, which has terrorism (and narco-terrorism) elements that represent direct threats—especially concerning the Islamic State—to the U.S. homeland […]

    I strongly agree with Bunker’s “dark spirituality” angle present in deviant religious-military movements. For example, ISIS, for all its protestations of ultra-orthodoxy in its Salafism exudes a spirit of protean paganism in its words and deeds.

    The second is a book, Clausewitz on Small War by Christopher Daase and James W. Davis (Hat tip to Nick Prime). From a book review at the London School of Economics:

    ….The current generation’s trend in understanding Clausewitz is that of moving beyond On War – an analysis which Clausewitz himself considered incomplete and which was published posthumously. As part of this shift, 2015 alone saw the publication of a new account of his life, together with a biography of his wife and a comparison between Napoleon’s and Clausewitz’s ideas on war, to name a few.

    Through Clausewitz on Small War, Christopher Daase and James W. Davis make a significant contribution to such efforts of contextualisation. Yet theirs is quite distinct from other works, in that they translate into English writings that were thus far accessible only to those with a reading knowledge of German. This is precisely where the value of the book lies, as well as being the editors’ primary aim: opening up Clausewitz through translating his own words, rather than in interpreting them. In doing so, they offer the tools through which future analyses can be better informed.

    The editors nonetheless do set out a case in the introduction: Clausewitz’s writings on ‘Small War’ are testimony to his continuing relevance. To illustrate this, they offer four chronologically arranged texts – a journey of how his thinking on Small War evolved. Each text was written with a different frame of mind. The first is comprised of lecture notes on small-unit warfare that are informal and rather technical; the second and third are memoranda distributed to military reformers and through which Clausewitz passionately makes the case for militias; and the final is a chapter from On War, again on the arming of the people.

    I would add that ZP contributor, Lynn Rees, also had a recent post on the role of Marie von Clausewitz in shaping “Clausewitz” and Clausewitzian thought.

    That’s it.


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